Movement 1: Maestoso – Allegro
Movement 2: Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile – Andante con moto – Adagio molto espressivo
Movement 3: Scherzando vivace – Presto
Movement 4: Finale
The close thematic integration is offset by the majestic slow syncopated chords that introduce the movement; these are thematically divorced from the rest, and deliberately, for their function is purely tonal. First they establish the main key of E flat and by contrast heighten the lightness of the Allegro as it floats in. For its second group the music slips subtly into G minor, and at the end of the exposition the introductory chords make a striking return in G major. Now, if you abruptly turn minor to major (in a situation like this) the major soon begins to sound like the dominant of a new key. At first, with the return of the Allegro, G major holds its own, but soon drifts away until the development reaches a climax in C major (to which G major is dominant) — and another return of the introduction! Any other composer would have brought these chords back either at the recapitulation or at the start of the coda (and a romantic composer would have tried to deify them at the end of the whole work). But Beethoven is concerned only that we should remember the luminous C major, on which he is going to hang a stroke of genius in the finale. So, for the moment, he stays there as the Allegro comes back again, and the development continues, slipping with wonderful unobtrusiveness into the recapitulation a little later on. The second group is re-stated, this time transfigured into a smiling tonic major, and the movement ends ethereally with a coda of rare beauty.
The second movement is a set of variations on a vast theme in A flat, rising from marvellously hesitating introductory bars. The theme is in two parts, each played first by the violin then by the cello, with a short and extremely subtle codetta. Variation I is a wonderful study in proliferating lines of melody in all four parts. Variation II is in a quicker tempo, largely a joyous duet for the two violins over a light staccato accompaniment. For Variation III Beethoven makes an inspired turn to E major; the original melody is totally transformed, and a sublime calm reigns, the whole lit by an intense slow fire such as only Beethoven could ignite. The flame fades, and Variation IV returns to A flat in the original 12/8 tempo, rising to an impassioned climax with magnificent striding arpeggios in the accompaniment. Then the coda begins, with a turn into the subdominant (D flat major); it changes to the minor; mystery prevails. But the light grows once more and we find the music flowing into yet another variation, this time richly decorative and polyphonic; it is a characteristic of the coda of a Beethoven variation movement that it should contain (or sometimes begin to contain) another variation, as if the slow momentum cannot be stemmed. After this the movement sinks to a serene close, with a passing and very touching reference to the E major of Variation III.
Like the first movement, we might think, the Scherzo contrasts close thematic working with abrupt use of unrelated material — or does it? The strange interruption in the middle, changing from 3/4 to 2/4 and a slower tempo (Allegro as opposed to Scherzando vivace) seems like a new idea, but it rises from the preceding passage, which in turn is derived from the main theme. The mood is mysteriously elated, and is intensified by the remarkable Presto Trio in E flat minor, with its startling modulations. As in the Ninth Symphony (finished in the same year) a second appearance of the Trio is soon cut off — though in this case more kindly.
The opening of the gay finale seems to be on the dominant of C, but quickly drops into E flat for the singing main theme. The suggestion of C should remind us of what happened in the first movement. And the development starts very lightly in C major, turning emphatically to C minor before venturing elsewhere. Notice the incredibly smooth and cunning return to E flat for the recapitulation. At the end of the recapitulation — what? C major and a new tempo! All is grace and air — the effect is so magical that one careless writer (who had the sense to remain anonymous) actually asserted that the work ended in C major. But of course Beethoven finds the way back to E flat through a series of glorious modulations, and so this masterpiece comes to an end.
from notes by Robert Simpson © 1991